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Petition drive to let voters decide fate of Allentown water and sewer systems reaches a milestone

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 28 2012 09:31:49 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 29 2012 05:01:53 AM CST

Could Allentown's charter be changing?

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

A petition drive to let Allentown voters decide if the city should lease its water and sewer systems reached a milestone Wednesday afternoon, when petitions bearing more than 4,000 signatures were presented to the City Clerk in City Hall.

More milestones must be passed before drive organizers can declare success.

Those petitions request that a question be placed on the May primary election ballot that would require the city to get approval from voters before selling or leasing any property worth more than $10 million.

Allentown is gathering proposals from companies interested in paying up to $200 million to lease the city water and sewer systems for 50 years.

A petitioners committee of five city residents who oppose that lease are hoping most city taxpayers will agree with them on May 21 -- primary election day.

The committee needed 2,000 signatures of registered voters who live in Allentown to get the question on the ballot, but set a goal of 3,000 in case some signatures were challenged. By Wednesday, it collected 4,151 and continues to collect more.

Organizers see the high number of signatures as “a firm rebuke” of Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s lease plan. In other words, they assume their initiative will result in a defeat for that plan.

“That’s a generalization we can safely make,” said committee spokesman Dan Poresky. “The circulators told us people they approached were very eager to sign the petition. Most had heard of the mayor’s plan and nearly all were skeptical and didn’t trust that water rates and water quality will be protected. They didn’t like the idea of a for-profit corporation using our public water supply to enrich their executives and their stockholders.”

If City Hall throws up any barricades to getting the question on the ballot, Poresky said the committee will go to court to challenge those actions, as permitted by the city charter. “We are prepared to do whatever it takes to give the people a chance to be able to vote on this,” he said.

“Michael, we’ve got a present for you,” said committee member Glenn L. Hunsicker, as he presented City Clerk Michael Hanlon a box filled with signed petitions Wednesday.

The committee members asked Hanlon for a receipt for the petitions, which Deputy City Clerk Tawanna Whitehead immediately began stamping with the time and date they were received.

Hanlon said his office has 20 days to review petition signatures by comparing them to a list from the Lehigh County voter registration office to see if they match. “All I’m doing is certifying whether or not they are registered voters,” said Hanlon.

“Then we will issue a determination as to their sufficiency.”

Committee members told Hanlon they want to monitor that process if anyone else from the city administration is involved in authenticating that they have collected a sufficient number of valid signatures.

The petitioners hoped to get their question on the May ballot without any approval from City Council. But Hanlon said his understanding is that, if he determines the petitions are sufficient, the matter goes to City Council as a bill and council must act on it within 60 days. Poresky assumes that approval by council will just be a formality:  “We expect council to do the right thing and approve our petitions.”

If council approves the petitions, Hanlon said the issue will go to the Lehigh County election board to get the question on the ballot.

If Hanlon determines the petitions are insufficient, the committee will have five days to send a letter asking City Council to review his decision. Committee members said council will have to put it on the agenda for its very next meeting.

The unknown factor is what role, if any, City Solicitor Jerry Snyder will play in determining what happens next.

The petitioners committee includes Poresky, Hunsicker, his son Glenn S. Hunsicker, William Hoffman and Michael Donovan.

In an October 25 legal opinion to City Council, Snyder maintained those five city residents single-handedly had to collect all required signatures to get the question on the May ballot.

But the men, who already had started collecting signatures, ignored Snyder’s opinion. They had 30 people circulating petitions.

Hanlon indicated he will confer with the city solicitor when he checks the petitions, which he said is the normal process, but does not know if Snyder will give him any direction regarding those 30 people.

At a news conference in City Hall before the petitions were taken to the City Clerk’s office, Poresky said: “The solicitor’s opinion is a fabrication intended to further the mayor’s agenda of pushing through the water privatization plan with minimum public scrutiny and input.”

He called the opinion “a blatant attempt to thwart our efforts and an obvious distortion of the intent of the [city] charter. They are changing the rules to affect the outcome. There is nothing in the charter or in precedent to support this opinion. The solicitor’s opinion shows obvious contempt and disdain for the intent of the charter.”

He said if the writers of the city charter wanted only members of the committee to circulate petitions, that charter would say so, “but it doesn’t.”

Snyder could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Poresky maintained City Council has “the power and responsibility” to override the city solicitor’s opinion.

Committee members could not say if they alone had collected the required minimum of 2,000 signatures. But Glenn S. Hunsicker said the committee may gather an additional 1,000 signatures in the next two weeks, for a total of 5,000. He said the deadline for collecting names is Dec. 14.

Jeanette Eichenwald, the only member of the seven-member City Council who has signed a petition, said with 4,000 signatures, “it is 4,000, plus me, against six. I don’t see six and one. I see thousands and six.” She said 4,000 votes can elect a candidate to City Council.

Glenn L. Hunsicker said the 4,000 signatures represent 20 percent of the 20,000 city residents who voted in 2010.

Even if petition drive organizers succeed in getting their initiative question – they no longer refer to it as a referendum -- on the ballot, City Council and the administration could sign a lease with a water company long before the May primary.

But the petitioners hope just having 4,000 signatures proves there is enough public concern to convince council to delay approving any water and sewer lease until after a vote on their question.

Mayor Pawlowski hopes to receive bids before the end of this year and award a lease to the highest bidder by March. City Council must approve that lease contract. The mayor thinks the majority on council will do that because “they realize there are no other options” to solve the city’s pension crisis.

Committee members said if the mayor presents City Council with a contract for its approval, they can initiate an injunction to prevent council from moving forward on approving that lease agreement until after the May vote.

On Wednesday afternoon, city communications coordinator Mike Moore declined to comment on what, if anything, the administration will do in response to the petitions.

In a statement released through Moore, Mayor Ed Pawlowski said: “The City of Allentown has an immediate $150 million and growing unfunded pension liability problem on its hands. The petitioners’ proposed ballot question offers nothing in the way of another solution.

“The minimum payment on that debt will soon consume nearly 30 percent of the general fund budget. If not addressed, it will affect city taxpayers dramatically. I am convinced that the proposed concession and lease is the best way to solve that problem without burdening city property owners with an enormous tax increase of 100 percent or more.”